Fitness, Shape, Women's Health, Men's Fitness, Men's Health, Self: Where did the fitness magazine come from and where is…

The business, culture, and science of working out.
Jan. 19 2011 4:15 PM

10 Tips for Tighter Buns!

The fitness magazine: where it came from and where it's going.

See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.

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Rodale's Women's Health, more earnest and less self-conscious about playing it like a guy's girl, reads a bit like a men's magazine, stat-addled and oversexed. "Look Great Naked," "Strip Away Stress," "Reveal Your Abs for Good." The Shape girl flaunts her bikini top. The Fitness girl is saving up for a ski weekend. Women's Health, illustrating an item on toning the lower body, offers a picture of a sultry "ski bunny" baring a bikini top on the ski slope, poles slung over a saucy shoulder. Also, the Women's Health gal is a bit of cyborg. With an iPhone at the hip of her low-rise jeans, she is joined instinctively to the Web and a constant stream of data and research. This Barbie likes math, and to quote a current footwear ad, her body is the technology. She tweaks her technique in her core workout as if it were a Facebook profile.

There's a "Style + Beauty Lab," a "body-age calculator," a lot of oversized numbers floating up from the typography, trailing small-print stats like balloons trailing strings. The letter from Editor-in-Chief Michele Promaulayko begins by caroming from science-fiction to self-help: "Transformers. The word may conjure up big-screen images of giant robots sent from outer space to save the world, but it can also be used to describe … people who have cultivated a talent for inspiring positive change in others." (One such person is the celebrity personal trainer seen lower on the page, supine on a trampoline as if ready to be mounted.) The covergirl is Olivia Wilde, the peg being her tour through the virtual world of Tron: Legacy. A friend writes: "To fit into Quorra's skintight outfit for Tron, Olivia worked with a trainer and did 45 minutes a day of cardio. …"

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Synergistically, the current issue of Men's Health —also from Rodale, not so much the brother of the Women's Health reader as her booty call—features on its cover Garrett Hedlund, Wilde's Tron costar. Our hero looks a bit awkward here: The art director has him wearing his name on his chest rather in the manner of a Hello! My Name Is… sticker. Inside, the display text tells of Hedlund's journey from "skinny farm kid" to action hero: "All it took was hard work and the threat of a skin-tight suit." Again with the skin-tight suit, transforming flesh into form, a sheath in which the body becomes a metaphor for itself. Men's Health features a quorum of fun stuff, vivid diagrams on how to take a fall and ace a table-tennis serve, and its list of the best and worst chain restaurants deserves a laminated place in every glove box. You frequently encounter the work of name writers in these precincts—the good humor of Gil Schwartz on office politics ("Flex Your Success Muscles"), the mild irruption of a Joel Stein think piece ("It's Super Schlub!"), and the oddity of a Rick Moody service piece (" 'Tis the Season To Be Sober") possibly repurposed from an early draft of The Black Veil. Moody's 900-word essay offers a multipoint plan for staying dry not just at holiday parties but also during college reunions at Brown and while suffering through trips to France, and it gives two unimpeachably good pieces of advice: 1) Just say no, and 2) go help out in the kitchen. I'm on the fence about another technique Moody advises: Take a fellow teetotaler as a date, leave after 10 minutes, and then go out to coffee glowing with a self-righteous light. This may or may not be the best guidance for people who do not wish to drink at parties, but I recommend it highly to people who aren't any fun at them.

More practical is the sex columnist Grant Stoddard, who, in "Rev Up Her Sex Drive," tells you how to turn your woman on: Be trustworthy, communicate freely and clearly about one another's desires, and pay her compliments at every opportunity, especially while she's using the vibrator you bought. Also, and this is a direct quote, "squeeze her butt in the morning as she makes coffee." This is common-sense stuff, which makes it all the more conspicuous when Stoddard turns for authority to the groves of academe. "A woman who's secure in her sexuality has the confidence to wield her power at will," reads one article, citing "a University of Ottawa survey of 932 women."

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This brings us around to the Self girl, represented in a photo spread by a Gwyneth-y blonde. She is a city girl with expensive good taste (Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs), yoga shorts (a crucial 1.5 centimeters shorter than those on the Fitness chick), and a quaint interest in reading personal essays. I need to note that—strictly going by the math, by the number of recipes in its pages—the Self reader is less interested in cooking than are her peers, and I need politely to connect that fact with this being the work of our friends at Condé Nast, who enjoy being taken out to eat, among other dietary habits. What recipes there are in the current Self come from the file of Jillian Michaels, the superstar personal trainer, who is wrapped in a skin-tight lavender dress on the cover and who beams warmly on dozens of pages within, in advertising ("My Whey Is Better") and in editorial ("Erase 8 pounds!"). In the editor's letter, Lucy Danziger softens this professional hardass's edges: "When you meet Jillian Michaels, the first thing that strikes you (other than how pretty she is) is how nice she is."

This magazine, each of these magazines, offers itself as a personal trainer. It is a status symbol, an honest voice, a neutral source, a paid inspiration in superheroine tights, a servant greeting the reader with a handshake like a velvet vice grip.

Also in Slate's Fitness issue, Emily Yoffe gets shredded by Jillian Michaels and coddled by Jack LaLanne; our foreign correspondents reveal the latest global workout trends; and our handy flowchart helps you navigate awkward, naked gym situations.

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